In the far north of Australia, there is a vast tract of Aboriginal owned land called Arnhem Land. It covers hundreds of kms of coast, small islands and large tracts of sub-tropical Savanna woodlands. Here live the Yolŋu people.

Not far from the coast in almost the very centre of Arnhem Land there is a small homeland community called Mäpuru. In 2002 fifteen enthusiastic, proud young men who, for a variety of understandable reasons had been reluctant to attend the school on Elcho Island (a ½ hour flight away from Mäpuru) expressed interest in a Vocational Education Training (VET) course under Training Remote Youth (TRY) funding.

TRY was to be different. TRY was aimed at youth who were not attending school. It seemed that there might be hope at last for a change from the endless cycle of training that rarely resulted in employment for trainees. Well, the fifteen young men attended virtually every day, their attendance was very high and they applied themselves to the task, which involved building maintenance – measuring, sawing, nailing, drilling, welding, painting, many of the skills that they hoped would lead them to being employed. At the end of the program, no jobs were offered to these young men despite there being major capital works being undertaken by a number of government organisations. White contractors continued to build houses, extensions to schools, and other government infrastructure. Even the qualified Yolŋu builders and painters could not get a job with any of these contractors. Worst of all the young men who had successfully completed their TRY program felt rejected, like they’d been given another kick in the guts. How could this training help them grow up with dignity and pride? Deep down they knew, they would never get a job, and would continue to be trained’ by whites. They could never be good enough.

The final straw came when an RTO who had organised a training on the Tiwi islands, sought access to the secondary students on Elcho Island. The Tiwi islanders said no they didn’t want the program, so the RTO went to Maningrida and all was ok until Maningrida said no we don’t want your program either. By this time the RTO was desperate to acquit their funds. Well the school at Elcho agreed. The next week the RTO arrived, students were pulled out of classrooms to attend financial management training. A good result for all but the students. The RTO acquitted their funds, the trainer was highly paid, and the school had delivered another training package which would be added to its CV. The program was not only irrelevant and extremely disruptive to the student’s school program, but harmful to their dignity. They knew they were being used.

The community decided that this must never be repeated. But where to from here? Thinking through the process it was obvious that Yolŋu dignity and self-esteem could be returned through turning the current model on its head and letting Yolŋu train Balanda (white people). Such a program could only occur on a home-land where land owners have authority to make decisions.

And this is where two sisters and elders from the Mäpuru community come into the story. For many years Marathuwarr, Bambalarra and their daughter Roslyn had put enormous effort and personal expense into weaving baskets, spinning string, and travelling to teach people all over Australia. Unfortunately, these efforts did not translate into income or wider recognition of their skill.

They started to wonder, what if they could be employed as short term artists in residence and teach their expert skills in basket weaving to future generations. Every tertiary institution with a textile school in Australia was contacted with the proposal that they employ these women. There were no takers.

Then out of the blue, a senior tapestry weaver rang from Melbourne. She was interested to visit the women at Mäpuru. The community was keen, but there needed to be more participants. Soon there were three, and the first weaving workshop in Mäpuru was conducted. And what a success it was! Since then (2003) there are 4 annual workshops where both CERES Global and Nature philosophy take groups of 15 people at a time to learn to weave. Each participant pays the women of Mäpuru for this privilege and thus creating meaningful employment on country. The success of these workshops were recognised by the men of Mäpuru, and soon they decided to offer Living on Country Workshops for Men to coincide with the weaving workshops.

But perhaps equally important is that these trips provide so much more than basket weaving workshops and bush survival skills. They are a means of cultural exchange and two way learning and understanding between Yolŋu and Balanda (white people) breaking down stereotypes and building friendship, family, connection and understanding.

To find out how you can travel to Mäpuru visit https://ceres.org.au/global/arnhem-land/

The contents of this story were adapted from the original post on the Arnhem Weavers Website.